Last week, ahead of Survivor’s fortieth—that is not a typo, it airs two seasons a year—season premiere, CBS aired a retrospective titled “Survivor at 40: Greatest Moments & Players.” It took viewers on a journey back to 2000, when Survivor was a hare-brained idea turned overnight cultural phenomenon, and walked us through a celebration of 39 seasons of alliances and blind sides.
Well, Survivor thinks it’s a celebration. Watching the special, I was struck by how many moments that Survivor—and, most specifically, host/producer Jeff Probst—sees as “great” are in fact moments that reveal the fault lines in the show’s format. Sure, there are moments like Erik giving up his Immunity Necklace or Eliza’s reaction to Ozzy’s fake immunity idol where I am brought right back to watching those seasons and reveling in the beauty of this game. But then you have the show celebrating situations like Cirie being voted out of “Game Changers” by default because every other player played an Immunity Idol or some other kind of advantage, or a player voted out and absent for the majority of the game returning from the “Edge of Extinction” and winning, or the producers being so invested in one (bad) player’s story that they invented a new rule exclusively because they knew it would allow Ben to win “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.” Individually, these moments were frustrating, but brought together they are a damning case against how Survivor has muddied its gameplay and sacrificed something in the process; and yet, to the producers, they’re “great moments.”
This is not the only Survivor disconnect in recent years: the 39th season drew the show’s challenges confronting social inequality and implicit/explicit bias out into the open with an ongoing case of sexual harassment, which the show badly midhandled and struggled to reconcile in its finale. I still have incredibly fond memories of Survivor, but the game is in a fragile state on multiple levels, and after last season I wondered if my fatigue of the format and anger over how Kellee’s situation was handled might be a breaking point.
“But Myles,” Survivor said. “What about the Winners season?”
Although not officially announced until December, most Survivor fans knew that Season 40 wasn’t going to be just another season, or even just another All-Stars season. It was going to be the fabled “Winners” season, where a group of players who have all outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted their competition will put their reputation on the line. And when the announcement officially came at the end of last season, and when the “Survivor at 40” special concluded with the a preview of tonight’s premiere, I realized that for all my reservations about the state of this game there is too much history here for me to sit out a season that brings together so many great players (and Ben, but every season needs a villain).
And to be honest, “Greatest Of The Greats” mostly made me forget about those reservations. Every one of the show’s All-Stars seasons has a certain thrill attached to it, but the components here are operating on a different level immediately. I think the central reason is that unlike most seasons, it doesn’t feel like Jeff Probst is shoving a theme down our throat: the winners theme speaks for itself, and there is less of an effort to try to force returning players into either a tribal theme (like Heroes vs. Villains) or an individual theme (the wonky Game Changers). Each person won a different game, for different reasons, and comes into Winners at War with a different set of goals. Not everyone’s built-in narrative is equally interesting (see: Ben, although we’ll get to that later), but there is enough variety that there’s a degree of sensory overload. But because the game mostly eschews traditional introductions, the premiere felt like it had the space to give us the stories we needed, and to reinvest us in a fairly wide variety of players in just a two-hour window.
Although the tribes are not divided in any particular way—and were determined by producers, not by a random draw, so there’s plenty of engineering even without a theme—the narrative divide generated through various talking heads is “New School” vs. “Old School.” The producers were clearly peppering players like Ethan, Yul, and Amber who haven’t played in over a decade with questions about how different the game is now. There’s a great moment after Dakal loses the second immunity challenge where Yul is trying to establish some type of decorum on the coming strategy talks, but there’s never really any expectation that these older players can control the terms of the game. The question is which of the returning players from the first half of the game’s life is the best at adapting their style of game to the new, overstuffed Survivor format, the reality show equivalent of Ken Jennings’ recent challenge (successfully) adopting James Holzhauer’s style of play in Jeopardy’s Greatest of All Time tournament.
Of course, the difference in this case is that you don’t have control of your game in Survivor like you do on Jeopardy. There are too many forces working against you, and Winners at War amplifies this. While it removes the immediate All-Stars target of being a past winner by leveling the playing field, pre-existing relationships are playing a much more significant role this time around. This has always been the case with recent All-Stars seasons, as the “Survivor community” is a social formation that would create natural alliances, but the show has never fully embraced it as text as much as we see here: Yul speaks frankly about being outside of the group, and they go so far as to show us the footage from the Celebrity Poker game that has Yul convinced that Tyson, Kim, Rob, Jeremy, and presumably Amber are likely working together. Both tribal councils ended up being interesting combinations of early points of tension: Sele’s first trip broke down to Jeremy and Natalie’s past playing together in San Juan Del Sur and Denise and Adam’s conspicuous time away from camp, while Dakal became a cross-section of players with past connections (Sarah, Tony, and Sandra’s time together on Game Changers), the “Poker Alliance” (Kim, Amber, and Tyson), and then four floaters who thought they’d be at a disadvantage until they realized that the producers designed the teams in ways that actually gave them considerable power.
The scrambling around both of these votes carried a different edge to it (pun unintended, we’ll get to that unfortunate business in a bit). You could say that it’s the $2 million creating higher stakes, but on a basic level the simple fact that everyone has won this game before creates an distinct form of tension. I have to admit that I enjoyed watching Ben through this episode, not because he’s any more interesting or compelling as a Survivor contestant, but rather because he was completely overwhelmed by the experience. Watching him completely melt down trying to play strategy with Rob was deeply satisfying, both for reaffirming that he had no business winning his season given a lack of strategic prowess and also for selling us on the pressures that certain winners face when surrounded by people who won based on their gameplay. When Michele survives her first tribal on the wrong side of the vote, her narrative becomes clear: nobody thought she should have won her season, and she’s trying to prove them wrong. But that requires overcoming the obstacle of just plain being intimidated by the idea of being part of these tribes, which could be a great narrative for a winner or an early way to thin the herd.
In the end, though, there’s a general feeling that the bigger targets aren’t going to survive deep into the game. Rob and Sandra just spent all of Island of the Idols being reified into Survivor history, and nothing that happens in these episodes makes you think that either has any chance of making it to the merge (even if Sandra does have a short-term Idol in her pocket). And so I appreciated the way this finale gave us what could be our only dose of two of the game’s most prominent players doing what they do best, surviving votes in which they should have been easy targets by making smart choices and knowing when to let things play out. Rob and Parvati make a really interesting early team, and their realization that no one was actually gunning for them (and Jeremy’s too-late realization they were up to something) is a lovely testament to their history. And to see Sandra, the only two-time winner, be gifted the chance at Immunity and yet talk herself into a position where she’s not even close to being voted out, is a reminder of how much fun it is to see her worm her way through players who should know better by now. It will catch up with all of them eventually, as evidenced by the fact the Dakal vote shakes down to Amber fairly easily, but I’m going to enjoy the fight while it lasts.
Of course, their fight won’t stop there. We need to acknowledge the two other pieces of “escalation” that Survivor is adding to the equation for Winners at War, but I delayed in writing about them because I wanted to emphasized how unnecessary they are: this episode has plenty of compelling drama without pulling twists and turns into things (the only one I even really mentioned was Sandra’s immunity idol, which didn’t matter anyway). “20 Survivor winners fighting to be the ultimate champion” is more than enough to work with, and the idea that Probst and the producers decided to test out an entirely new idea (the “fire tokens”) and bring back a divisive one (the Edge of Extinction) is at odds with everything else happening in these episodes.
That having been said, though, I do think the two twists go hand in hand, and are an attempt at fixing Edge of Extinction. The fire tokens, a new form of game currency, are initially presented as a form of temptation: a tribe can choose to use them to acquire luxury items outside of challenges, or tip the scales in a key immunity challenge by purchasing an advantage. And yet, given that they’re an individual currency, I doubt we’ll see many contestants throw a fire token into a group purchase when this is an individual game, and there are so many threats to take care of that it will be a long time before a tribe is collectively concerned about going to tribal. And so initially, the fire tokens seem like a waste of time, right up until Natalie (voted out for her close connection to Jeremy) makes her way to the Edge of Extinction, and it’s revealed that she will have the ability to collect fire tokens of her own by intervening in the game from afar.
We saw a bit of this on the first Edge of Extinction, but the producers clearly want to frame this as the new “purpose” of Edge of Extinction. Players no longer choose whether or not they want to be exiled: they are forced to give their fire token(s) to another player still in the game and make their way to purgatory. And so when Natalie finds the clue that informs her that she has the ability to send the three-tribal idol into the game for someone to “buy” with a fire token that she’ll then take possession of in order to purchase advantages in the “return” challenge or an idol she can take back into the game, the producers have her very clearly state in the interview about how this now gives her a way to continue to play strategically from afar. “See,” Survivor is saying, “you fans can’t say that the person who comes back didn’t play the game anymore.”
I have two responses to this. The first is that, yes, this technically does create a clearer narrative for an Edge of Extinction player that Chris lacked, and if they choose to bring the player who “survives” the Edge back into the game sooner rather than later I think this could do a lot to address my concerns. However, the reality is that Natalie still isn’t playing the same game as everyone else: she chose wisely in sending the idol to Sandra (of course she’s going to buy it, she’s worried about her short term survival), that isn’t the same thing as observing tribe dynamics and making strategic decisions accordingly. And so my second response is that I’m just not convinced that there is anything Survivor can do to convince me that this game is better with Edge of Extinction in it.
In pre-game interviews, Probst has basically suggested that they wouldn’t have been able to convince a lot of the winners to return to the game if they weren’t guaranteed a shot at returning to the game. We have no way of knowing whether that was really true (he didn’t cite specific examples), and there is enough pleasure to be found here that I certainly prefer to have a convoluted winners season over not having a winners season at all. But I can’t help but feel that Probst is just bored of how the game used to work, and is always trying to add to things because he thinks that’s what the game needs. And while there’s part of me that appreciates that Amber—who spoke earnestly about the difficulty of leaving her kids and wanting to do this on her own—will still be able to be a part of this game, I’m not convinced that the game becomes better as more and more narratives stockpile on the Edge of Extinction and Natalie and Amber are working to simultaneously help themselves and their allies left in the game. I think the fire tokens and the pre-existing relationships that come with an All-Stars season make the Edge of Extinction more tolerable, but I’m never going to be convinced that those pre-existing relationships need the Edge of Extinction or fire tokens to mae a great season of Survivor.
Because “Greatest Of The Greats” would have worked just fine without any of the accoutrements. It was so emotional to hear Ethan talking about returning to the game as a cancer survivor, and low-key thrilling to experience the game through Yul’s logical eyes once more. The Survivor gods were shining on the producers, as well, with the two tribes each visiting tribal council, and a thrilling Immunity Challenge comeback, coming together into a premiere that tapped into the uncertainties of Survivor while also delivering on some tried and true narrative beats we’ve come to expect early in a season. By these early accounts, it is a season deeply enriched by the show’s past, and by our relationship to these castaways. And while I can’t help but wish we were getting a winners season that wasn’t obsessed with generating its own past that will linger on in the game with minimal benefit, I can’t deny that a lot of my misgivings about the state of Survivor melted away as a group of old friends, enemies, and everything in between got back to business.
- So, for reference, the initial tribes were as follows: Natalie, Rob, Ethan, Parvati, Ben, Michelle, Danni, Denise, Jeremy, and Adam on Sele; Tony, Wendell, Amber, Sophie, Sarah, Sandra, Yul, Nick, Tyson, and Kim on Dakal.
- The two Tribal Councils didn’t end up being close votes: Natalie earned seven votes (with Natalie, Jeremy, and Michele left splitting between Denise and Adam), while Amber drew six votes (with Kim having three, likely as a planned split, and Nick drawing likely Amber’s vote for reasons that aren’t immediately clear).
- I’ve come around on Rob over time—I refuse to call him Boston Rob, it’s just not happening—but I will say that seeing him literally put his team on his shoulders did a lot to return him to an exalted status that doesn’t really play for me, and I don’t like the idea that Amber’s narrative now becomes all about keeping him in the game. I hope he goes out soon (his whole “revenge on Sandra” thing is the show working too hard to play the “Idols” against each other, I don’t care), and I also hope he decides on the Edge to work to help Amber get back into the game instead of himself.
- Of the returning winners, the two I have the least memory of are Kim (I didn’t watch all of One World, although I show an episode in my classes every semester) and Sophie, whose season I watched but whose game didn’t register (perhaps because she changed her hair). Kim had more to do since she was in danger, but I liked Sophie’s approach to the game, and think she’s a nice dark horse.
- Speaking of: I joined a Survivor pool last summer before filming started (since the cast was leaked immediately), and have of course completely forgotten which players I picked, so I’m about to go look that up and see how it went. *Checks the spreadsheet* My first pick was Amber. Nailed it. (Note that former player current podcaster Rob Cesternino offered his own odds for the season here at The A.V. Club, inconveniently well after I made my selections without really thinking it through.)
- If you watched Netflix’s Cheer, or any of the YouTube and talk show content generated after the fact, you may be familiar with the idea of “Mat Talk,” which I’m now realizing is very much part of Survivor as well for whoever is sitting out at the challenges. Sandra is pretty good at it, and her badgering of Tony’s performance was an episode highlight for me, a person who dislikes Tony.
- I believe Michele took the longest of any of the returning players to earn a confessional, although I wasn’t keeping track. Will be an interesting balancing act as the season goes on, especially with the Edge thrown in.
- Did everyone else see financial investment commercials starring Danni throughout the episode, or were those local ads here in Virginia?
- Probst has said they’re bringing back challenges throughout the season, and the “Ring Battle” was a logical place to start. All-Star seasons historically begin with physicality, and while it was a bit disappointing to not get a sudden death showdown the challenge still plays well.
- Look, I get that they wanted an episode title that spoke to the theme better, but we all know that Parvtari earned the episode title with “Are we being Punk’d?!” and I hereby award her an honorary episode title to right this wrong.
- Speaking of Parvati, interesting to see both her and Tyson reframed as parents: obviously, it’s an easy way to emphasize the time that has passed since they last played the game, but it’s also a way to soften two players that have historically been positioned as something less than a traditional “hero.” So far, there really isn’t a clear “villain” edit at their disposal: no one is coming in saying they’re going to burn the house down, so I’m curious how that dynamic shakes out.
- It was interesting to see just how good Sandra is at this game despite the target on her back: whereas Rob and Parvati’s tribal performance raised alarm bells for Jeremy, Sandra is much better at avoiding showing her hand, which might keep her in the game a bit longer.
- At the moment, this is—like my review of the finale last season—intended as a drop-in. I cannot say if there’s any degree of readership that would convince them to reconsider adding weekly coverage given the history involved and the fact many of you reading this may be returning to the show after a lengthy absence, but it certainly can’t hurt to read, share, and tell your friends. At the very least, I’m hopeful I’ll be back for the finale, and I’ll be tweeting throughout the season regardless.